Careers in Physical Therapy


What are physical therapists?

Physical therapists (PTs) are important members of the health care team. When people have been injured, are recovering from certain surgeries, or have conditions such as arthritis, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease, physical therapists use strategies to reduce pain and help people become as mobile as possible. Physical therapists also help people use their bodies correctly, so they don’t develop pain and disabilities in the first place.

What do physical therapists do?

PTs first evaluate their client’s condition. They take a history from their client and test their client’s strength, endurance, and balance as well as the mobility of his or her joints. PTs review and analyze any information that has been provided to them by a referring physician or other health professional. Then they develop a treatment plan that is tailored to the needs and strengths of each client. This plan includes tasks both for the PT and the client. Often the PTs’ tasks include teaching their clients exercises and healthier ways to sit, stand, walk, and lift. PTs may also do manual manipulation or draw on a growing number of modalities that include ultrasound and water or electrical stimulation. When necessary, PTs instruct their clients in the proper use of assistive devices, such as crutches, wheelchairs, and prostheses (artificial limbs, etc.) Clients, in turn need to do the exercises, pay attention to how they use their bodies, and carry out other agreed upon treatments.

Where do physical therapists practice?

More than 65% of physical therapists practice in private offices, community health centers, industrial health centers, sports facilities, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, home health agencies, schools and pediatric centers. Others practice in acute care hospitals. Some do research in the public or private sector. Still others teach in colleges and universities.

How is physical therapy rated as a career?

In the April 15, 2007 issue of Parade, physical therapists were described as having one the 6 "hottest jobs for college graduates". The National Opinion Research Center reported that more than three-fourths of the physical therapists they polled said they were "very satisfied" with their occupation. A study reported in the Wall Street Journal's found that PTs' high satisfaction with their careers is based on such factors as intellectual stimulation, level of control and freedom, and extensive direct contact with clients.

Need for PTs

There are more than 150,000 licensed physical therapists in the United States who treat nearly 1 million people every day. With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, PTs will be more in demand than ever.

Tribal health programs and the Indian Health Service always need physical therapists. Community outreach, preventative education, and cultural appreciation are regarded as key features of IHS rehabilitation services. Services have been expanding over the years and include specialty care in such areas as diabetes, geriatrics, wound care, pediatrics, specialty hand foot care, orthopedics, and amputee rehabilitation.
Parts of this article were first published in the Spring 2003 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Burgess Roye, Ponca.)